Clinton-Obama Differences Clear In Senate Votes

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007

The attack ads practically write themselves: Hillary Clinton voted against ethanol! Barack Obama wants to increase taxes!

Such are the perils of running for president as a senator. The two front-runners for the 2008 Democratic nomination are newcomers to the chamber. But in the two years that Clinton and Obama have overlapped, they have taken opposite sides at least 40 times. That's a lot of material to mine, and even misrepresent.

Of the eight senators pondering presidential runs, Clinton (N.Y.), who is completing her first Senate term, and Obama (Ill.), sworn in two years ago, have the briefest voting histories. The Senate has held 645 roll-call votes during their shared tenure, and more than 90 percent of the time the two senators stood with other Democrats. They opposed John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination as chief justice, supported increased funding for embryonic stem cell research and backed the same nonbinding measure that urged President Bush to plan for a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq.

But other votes reveal important differences between the Democratic rivals that distinguish them as they prepare to launch their anticipated candidacies. The areas of dispute include energy policy, congressional ethics and budget priorities, relations with Cuba, gun ownership, and whether a senator can hold a second job.

In corn-growing Iowa, the first stop in the presidential nominating process, Clinton will have to explain the ethanol vote she cast on June 15, 2005. The senator recently softened her stance, but she is on record opposing a large federal boost for the grain-based fuel.

And Obama voted to increase taxes when he opposed a package of business breaks that included the extension of middle-class provisions. Clinton voted for the tax bill -- before she voted against it, as did Obama, in the legislation's final form.

As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) discovered in previous campaigns, the Congressional Record is a minefield for White House contenders, a catalogue of provincial concerns, convoluted logic and compromised principles.

"A senator is called upon to vote on almost everything," said former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who recently decided against a 2008 bid. Legislative records become "an inviting target for any political opponent," he said, because so few votes speak for themselves, much less reflect a lawmaker's true ideals. The Senate's unofficial motto: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. That's hard to explain in a debate, Daschle noted.

One of the sharpest substantive divides is over ethanol, an issue of particular potency in Iowa. The vote in question was an effort to block a proposed amendment to the 2005 energy bill that would have established an ethanol mandate for refineries. "If there were ever an onerous, anti-competitive, anti-free-market provision, this is it," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who led the effort and who warned that non-farming states could face spikes in gasoline prices because of supply limitations. Clinton at the time was campaigning for reelection and was one of 28 senators to support her colleague's failed bid.

At the time, New York had no ethanol industry. Iowa has more ethanol plants than any other state. "If someone voted or has a position against ethanol, it will be used by their opponents and it will be another issue they need to overcome" with voters in the Iowa caucuses, said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University.

Over the past year, Clinton has warmed to ethanol. Buffalo has decided to build a big ethanol plant, making the issue a home-state concern. In May, Clinton said current ethanol production is "a long way from helping us deal with our gas problems" and added: "We need to be moving on a much faster track."

Obama voted for the ethanol mandate. "As a senator from a corn-growing state, Obama will have no problem on the ethanol issue and can tout his credentials on this score with a clear conscience," said Peverill Squire, who teaches politics at the University of Iowa.

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